May 2022 - Big Sister
I was almost six, super excited when my baby sister was born. Although I loved playing with dolls, now I’d have a real live doll to hug and kiss, who could hug and kiss me back. Knowing how our mother could be violent, I watched my sister like a hawk, making sure she was safe from harm and had plenty of hugs from me since our mother wasn’t affectionate.
When my sister was about five months old, we moved to a garden apartment. We lived on the first floor. Upstairs was a young couple who quickly became friends with my parents. The husband adored my sister—me, not so much. Maybe it was because of the diaper incident.
When my mother wasn’t home she couldn’t hurt me so I was always devising ways to get her out of the house. The easiest for me was to find movies showing at local theatres, especially if it starred one of her two favorite actresses—Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. One day I scored a double play—two movies showing back-to-back, each starring one of them.
Even though I was only six, I reminded our mother that I was perfectly capable of taking care of my sister. She’d seen me feed and change her diapers, and had left the baby in my care when she was sick with a headache. I assured her that if there was a problem, I would ask the upstairs couple for help. Our mother really wanted to go and it took almost no persuasion on my part for her to agree. Armed with her favorite chocolates, she left the apartment. I watched her leave, relieved. I had at least three hours free from having to face her unprovoked anger.
When my sister woke up, I fed her a bottle, burped her, and after a long cuddle, put her back in her crib. About an hour later she woke up crying. I quickly realized she needed a diaper change and was getting things ready when the man from upstairs came into the apartment. He said he’d heard her crying. “She just needs her diaper changed. There’s nothing wrong,” I told him. I got out a clean diaper and was about to take off the dirty one when he pushed me aside.
“I’ll do it. You’re only a kid. Besides, your mother told me to take care of your sister if she cried.”
I was furious. What right did he have to come in and mess with my sister? She’d stopped crying as soon as I undid the dirty diaper. I knew I didn’t need his help, but he was bigger and older and a friend of my parents. There was nothing I could do to stop him.
I watched his clumsy moves, knowing I could and had done better. We had to use pins to secure the diaper and as he was preparing to pin the two ends of the diaper together, he accidently stuck the pin in my sister’s stomach. She howled.
With all my six-year-old’s sense of righteousness I pushed him aside. “See, you hurt her. You should have let me do it. I know how to change a diaper without making her cry.” I pinned the diaper ends then picked her up and calmed her down. She gurgled as I cuddled her to my chest and kissed her. I could feel the man from upstairs watching me but I kept going. I resented him taking over when I’d been doing everything right, though I was more than a little worried about what he’d tell my mother.
When I was sure she was okay, I put her back in her crib, put the blanket over her, and rubbed her back until she fell asleep. I wanted to tell him to leave, but he stayed for a while, sitting in the chair by the crib, I guess to make sure my sister was all right, which she was. Since he was my mother’s friend, not mine, I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was, “Why don’t you go upstairs where you belong?” I stood by the crib, waiting for him to go.
I breathed a sigh of relief when he finally left. I told my sister she was a good girl, that I loved her, then went into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of milk, put it and two cookies on a tray, and went into the living room to read until our mother returned.
When you were a child what assumptions did people make about you? Were there things you felt you could do that adults thought you couldn’t do?
5/6/2022 02:28:52 pm
I was surprised your mother left your baby sister, with you a six year old, for several hours. Obviously you were more than competent. I think you were the adult in the room.
5/7/2022 03:18:27 pm
What struck me was that not only were you always on alert, but that you never really had a childhood. There you were, hypervigilant about your baby sister, (something you never should have had to worry about), having to devise plans to get your mother out of the house so that you could feel safe, and then having to contend with a stranger coming in and usurping your role when you were extremely competent. The disrespect, the constant state of stress due to anxiety about your mother's erratic behavior are heartbreaking. You remember so much of your childhood. I hardly remember any of mine. Thank you for sharing this powerful memory. It shows your incredible resilience and intelligence.
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